Lakes research facility's closure 'a disgrace,' NDP says

NDP MPs are urging the federal government to reverse its decision to close the internationally renowned Experimental Lakes Area research station in Ontario.

Kent says Experimental Lakes Area facilities moving west to Saskatchewan

NDP MPs are urging the federal  government to reverse its decision to close the internationally renowned Experimental Lakes Area research station in Ontario.

Lake 239, one of 58 lakes that make up the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario, is seen in a webcam photo taken May 17. (experimentallakesarea.ca)

The ELA is due to close in March 2013 as part of the cuts at Fisheries and Oceans. The site costs about $2 million a year to run and has been the source of groundbreaking freshwater research for the past 40 years.

Four NDP MPs told reporters during a press conference Tuesday that the government has to stop muzzling scientists and cutting crucial  research.

"Scientists from around the world are condemning the move of this government," said Robert Chisholm, the NDP's fisheries critic.

"Canada has been at the forefront of freshwater research and we have the richest data in freshwater in the world. But Canada can only continue to be a leader in this area if the Conservatives reverse their decision and recommit funding to the ELA."

The ELA is a series of 58 pristine lakes southeast of Kenora. Research has included groundbreaking discoveries on acid rain and how phosphates in soap can cause lakes to turn green with algae. That discovery led to changes in the ingredients of household detergents worldwide.

Scientists decry cuts

The ELA employs 13 people full time at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, but also provides crucial support and a base for dozens of other scientists to conduct freshwater research. Several scientists held a press conference in Winnipeg on Tuesday calling on Ottawa to keep the facility open.

"This decision represents death by a thousand cuts to our scientific community," said Chisholm. "We are a three-coast nation but under this government, we will have no scientific capacity to understand our waterways. This, frankly, is a disgrace."

Manitoba MP Pat Martin, whose riding includes many of the people who will lose their jobs, said the cuts to the ELA don't make any financial sense.

"Right within the incorporation acts of this institute is the obligation if, it's ever shut down, the 58 lakes, have to be completely remediated back to their original state. The cost of that remediation far, far, far exceeds the operating cost of this invaluable organization," said Martin.

Eight leading scientists also joined growing public outcry against closure of the ELA with an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield and Environment Minister Peter Kent.

The scientists included John Smol, who holds the Canada Research Chair on Environmental Change at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and David Schindler, a renowned freshwater scientist from the University of Alberta who conducted the research into phosphates at the ELA.

The scientists say they are "deeply concerned" with the government's decision.

"Water is essential for life. Clean water is crucial for the health of all Canadians, and lakes are part of our social, spiritual and economic well-being. Canadians need and deserve an internationally renowned freshwater and fisheries research facility," says the letter.

Funds for Saskatchewan acid rain study

Tuesday in the House of Commons, Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia took the government to task for plans to possibly privatize the Experimental Lakes Area.

"The program does large ecosystem-scale research whose findings inform federal public policy," he said in Question Period.

"Because of the program we have an acid rain treaty with the United states and we've taken phosphate out of detergents.

"Canada's ecosystems belong to Canadians. Only the Conservatives would think that privatizing research fundamental to the health of our aquatic ecosystems is a good thing. Why isn't the government treat Calgary's water as a public trust?" Scarpaleggia asked.

In response, Environment Minister Peter Kent agreed that the ELA program played a big part in the acid rain treaty and in changing consumer goods, but said the government plans to move the ELA resources to Saskatchewan to conduct research on acid rain.

"At the same time, we want to put the research where the challenges are. Environment Canada is moving its scientists farther west to examine the acidification of lakes in Western Canada," Kent said.

Erin Filliter, a spokeswoman for Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, told CBC News earlier that freshwater research will continue elsewhere.

"The minister understands that science is the backbone of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the freshwater research conducted at other sites across the country will satisfy the current needs of the department.

"We look forward to transferring the [ELA] facility to a third party that will benefit from this unique location," Filliter said in an email.